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Fiction

Fausto

Patricia Engel

Fausto and I were together seven years by then. The neighborhood people still called us los niños even though we were twenty-five, not kids at all. We were at Virginia Key, the segregated beach in the not-so-old days, and maybe it still is because you only see inland Colombians there now. It was August. We were fresh out of hurricane number three. Our homes were out of power and because of where we lived we knew it would be a few days before we got it back. The hurricane pulled the seaweed out to the bay, turning the water as Caribbean turquoise as Miami gets. Fausto and I splashed around and made plans like we always did for when we got married, our honeymoon in Cartagena or San Andrés. Fausto wouldn’t propose without a ring, though, and that ring was taking a while because Fausto wasn’t exactly making millions as a security guard. I was wearing the string bikini he bought for me at some junk shop on Collins, and when we were up to our chests in water I pressed my body against his, “I don’t need a ring, Faustito. No woman in my family ever got a ring. Let’s not break the tradition.”

 

The sand was a brilliant white but you can’t stop sludge around here. I’d see guys on the side of the road selling piles of local catch shouting, “Fresh fish! Fresh fish!” and tell Fausto they were poisoning the community with those grease-bellied pescados. Fausto would say I was a pessimist and a paranoiac, but I didn’t care. I always carried alcohol pads to wipe our feet so we wouldn’t have to bring the ocean’s caca home with us. I was wiping tar off my heel when Fausto started waving to this gringo in a suit like he was his long-lost papi and left me standing flamingolike on the hot sand.

I knew everybody Fausto knew, even the people I didn’t know, like the ones from his job at The Diamond, a cylindrical Brickell condo that looks like a giant condom, because Fausto told me everything. He’d come home late and I always saved him a plate from the restaurant, listened to his stories about los ricos, their hot cars and hot women, how security guards are the eyes and ears of an apartment complex, know which residents are cheats, drunks, who gets visits from putas or cops. The gringo in the suit that day didn’t look like anyone I’d heard of.

Next to the suit guy’s fatness, Fausto was slim and brown like he’d been carved out of a coconut shell, swim trunks sticking to his thighs like cellophane.

I was still rubbing tar off my foot when Fausto returned.

“Who was that guy?” I asked.

 “He lives in The Diamond.”

“What did he want?”

“Just saying hi. What? I’m supposed to ignore the guy when he’s waving to me?”

“What’s he doing out here, in a suit?”

“Oye, Paz, you ask so many questions. Maybe he was checking the tide. How should I know?”

Fausto was one step from declaring me a pain in the ass so I shut up. He did that a lot. An old trick boys pull on their viejas, calling them naggy nags to blame them for their scamming. Not that Fausto was on the cheater’s track. No way. He relied on me too much for his babying.

He came up close to me, “Did I tell you I’m up for a promotion? Maybe this guy will put in a good word. He’s on the board. They stick together, esa gente. And you know what that means?”

“What?”

“More money, honey!” He lifted me into the air by the force of his palms under my butt and spun me like I was a little girl even though Fausto and I were the same height, lanky, forever tan like chorizos, same shoulder-length black waves that had everyone thinking we were twins until they caught us in a make-out, and the funny thing is we might have been related. Our parents were from the same hungry pueblo folded into the northern hills of Medellín. Maybe our abuelitas shared a lover. How else to explain that a continent and a few decades later we found ourselves looking into a mirror of Indian eyes, fat lips, touching each other’s cheeks with identical square fingertips that the Twenty-Seventh Avenue bus-stop bruja told us were rare blessings, meant for counting money. Fausto and I always knew we were made for each other. Nothing could get in the way of us. Not even my papi, or his. So I didn’t think much about the suit guy at the beach that day. Only about Fausto maybe getting promoted, getting that bigger paycheck and finally buying a ring to mark his girl so the neighborhood would stop groaning that he was a loser. Fausto used to say that all this, the hurricanes, the beach, the boring jobs, wasn’t real life—we were still in the womb and we’d really be born once we made some money, the kind of money where you don’t have to worry about your car dying on the road, you can buy bags and bags of groceries, where you can pay all your bills and you don’t have to buy crap at the flea market instead of a real store.

My father thinks people with natural-born money are evil but that’s because Papi got his start as a dishwasher. Worked his way up and now has his own cafetería Colombiana, so he’s no longer broke but he still talks like he is even though he just bought a brand-new Buick. And his restaurant doesn’t have some supercute name like every other Colombian joint in town: Mi Colombia Querida, Mi Sueño Colombiano, Rinconcito Paisa, Casita Antioquia. No, his place is named after him, el patrón: Silvio’s, the vain man that he is. I’m kidding. I just get on Papi’s case because he was always on mine about Fausto, but really my father is a fine man and I love him. Anyone in our neighborhood will tell you I’m the best daughter on this side of Cuba. For example, I go to church with Papi not only on Sundays, but First Fridays, some Wednesdays and Thursdays, and every Saturday, too, because Saturday is the day of the Virgin and if you go enough, you might get lucky and die on a Saturday, and La Virgen will take you straight to heaven like a VIP. My mother died of an embolism when I was a baby. On a Saturday. Papi says she went to Jesus direct and he’s repaying the favor by bringing the Virgin flowers every week. That’s my father: Mr. Gratitude.

The church brought me Fausto so I really can’t complain. I was in my senior year at Our Lady of Mercy. Papi and I went to the Friday sunrise Mass. I don’t know if they have those in other places but San Lorenzo’s parish is full of fanatics so they make it extra for them. I took communion and prayed for a boyfriend, like usual. When we were headed home after the service this off-duty priest, Padre Miguelangel, who was only a few years older than I am now and if he weren’t a priest, Papi would probably beg me to marry him, approached us and said, “Don Silvio, I have a favor to ask you.”

Papi loves when priests ask him favors. “Of course. Anything, Padre.”

It’s kind of funny when you see an old guy like my dad calling a newly minted priest padre. I personally had never called him anything but Miguelangel, even when he caught me crying in the back of the chapel after Saturno, the birth-control broker who supplied me and Fausto so Papi wouldn’t find out, got charged for selling Mexican duds. The padre held my hand and prayed four straight rosaries so I wouldn’t be premaritally pregnant, which we both knew would kill my father.

I never told Fausto. He was always saying San Lorenzo’s is one big pickup spot.

“I’m going to send a young man your way,” Miguelangel told Papi. “He needs a job. His mother is worried about him. His father died recently. Maybe you can give him something to do at the restaurant?”

“Of course, Padre. Consider it done.”

“His name is Fausto. Fausto Guerra.”

Papi chuckled, “With a name like that…”

Miguelangel smiled but caught himself and touched Papi’s arm, “Just see what you can do for him,” then headed off to the rectory.

I was at school when Fausto made his first appearance at Silvio’s. But when he showed up to start work the next morning, a Saturday, Fausto parked his body in front of my concession of vallenato and cumbia CDs, mochilas, bumper stickers, coffee, Colombian newspapers and magazines, and folkloric knickknacks.

He leaned against the glass case. “Who are you, belleza?”

“Paz. Silvio’s daughter.”

“And I’m Silvio, in case you forgot,” I didn’t realize Papi had come up behind me. “Get to work, muchacho. You’re an hour late.”

Sometimes love hits you like a drunk driver on Memorial Day weekend. A tragedy, really, but you don’t care because you’re the victim and beyond hope anyway. I was lost on Fausto by the time he tied his kitchen apron and got to work washing dishes because Papi thinks cleaning is a purification of the spirit, and he’d test Fausto’s humility before putting his pretty face to use as a waiter. I knew that was Papi’s intention but Fausto didn’t last. It was only one week and six broken dishes till he quit.

 

I’d had visions of Fausto becoming Papi’s right-hand man and Papi would give us the restaurant for a wedding gift and we’d manage it together and our children would work there and we’d start a chain of Silvio’s restaurants all over Miami and buy a house on a canal full of furniture from Macy’s. But Papi never got over it. Neither did Fausto. They only grew enough civility to nod at each other when Fausto came over to see me. Papi didn’t let him sit at our kitchen table. Fausto ate his warmed-over dinners on the patio steps or, only if it was raining, hunched over his lap in the living room. He wasn’t allowed into my bedroom either but we got around that years ago when Fausto loosened the window frame so he could slip in from outside. Papi never set foot in my room anymore because I was a lady now. He’s formal like that.

Fausto lived with his mom, La Vieja Guerra, the world’s most depressing exhibit of womanhood. A reclusive pygmy, always in nightgowns, never took the rollers out of her hair, hardly talked except to say, “Ay, Fausto,” like he was slowly killing her or something.

“Ay, Fausto, I need you to go to Navarro’s for my insulin.”

“I’m going to work, Mamá. Ask Tadeo.”

La Vieja would shake her head, “Ay, Fausto. Ay, Ay, Ay, Fausto.”

Tadeo was Fausto’s weed-head slug of a brother, who, unlike Fausto, barely contributed a dime to keeping their mom from starvation or homelessness.

When I came around La Vieja treated me like Mother Teresa, because, I told you, I’m famous for being pious Silvio’s dutiful daughter. I’d send her food from the restaurant through Fausto and she’d thank me like I made miracles, saying, “Ay, Paz, your mami would be so proud of you,” as if they’d been old friends.

I only knew my mother through the living room photos in crystal frames and the family portrait from my christening Papi hung over the register at the restaurant. I hear she was a real saint but they’ll say that about anyone who dies at twenty-six. Sometimes I wonder if she would have turned out like Fausto’s mom, peeking out at the world from behind the iron bars of her house. Fausto’s mother never went anywhere except to see the priests of San Lorenzo and complain about her troubles. Fausto’s dad ditched them for a mistress and died in a mudslide. That was the official Guerra family story. The mistress part was true but there was more, which Papi dug up through his blabbermouth church gang in his efforts to split Fausto and I up.

“His father was a narco,” Papi said. “Why do you think he left the country? What idiot goes back to Medellín voluntarily? When he got out of jail they deported him.”

When I brought it up to Fausto, he looked like I knifed him. I loved him more than ever at that moment. I almost said so, too, but he’d never believe me.

It happened in the early eighties. You couldn’t make an honest deal in Miami without running into drug money. His dad was working construction. I’d seen pictures. The guy looked like Fausto with an extra fifty pounds of muscle. A man came around his job site, a Coconut Grove coca compound, looking for guys to load trucks at some marina down south. They were offering big money and with La Vieja, two little boys at home, and a mistress to support, he went for it. His luck, they were busted. Fausto’s dad got eight years. His green card hadn’t yet come through so he was deported on release and they never heard from him again till word came that some kid shot him for his empty wallet.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

Fausto closed his eyes and rubbed his temples as if the memory gave him a migraine. I held him, kissed his hands and his face. We were lying on my twin bed with the pink canopy, pushed against the wall. My favorite place in the entire world because Fausto and I had to cling to each other all night to keep from falling over the edge.

Fausto didn’t get the promotion. He didn’t mention it until I asked. But then he grinned, and I knew there was something else he’d been waiting to tell me. It was midnight. He’d just gotten off work and come by my house for dinner. The air was thick with humidity and we were sweating. Me in my cutoff shorts and tank top and Fausto in his polyester uniform pants and undershirt. He tore through his chicharrón. Only Fausto could eat a bandeja paisa for lunch and three chicharrónes for dinner almost daily and not gain a pound. His face was smooth and glowed under the sliver of moonlight hitting the patio. I wanted to kiss him but decided to wait until he finished eating.

“You remember that guy from the beach, in the suit? He gave me his card the other day and told me to call him, so I did and he starts saying he’s been watching me and he thinks I’m real responsible, a hard worker, and I keep my mouth shut. He thinks I’d be good at this freelance gig. He needs someone he can trust, and the money is tight.”

“What do you have to do?”

“Nothing really. Just make some phone calls. That’s it.”

“Why can’t he do it himself?”

“He’s busy, obvio. I mean, the guy drives an Aston Martin.”

“Why would he ask you?”

He looked offended. “Not everyone looks at me like your father. Some people actually think I’m smart, you know.”

“Don’t be like that.”

“You should be proud this rich dude thinks your man has potential.”

“I’m always proud of you, pendejo. I wouldn’t be with you if I wasn’t.”

“You should be happy for me. Encourage me. That’s what a good wife does.”

“We’re not married yet.”

“Again with that, Paz? Fuck, you’re always pressuring me.”

“I’m just saying we could be married already, but we’re not.”

He shook his head like I was a disappointment.

“So who do you have to call and what do you have to say?”

“He’s going to tell me more tomorrow. I’m meeting him at Bicentennial Park.”

“Doesn’t he have an office or something?”

“He’s always on the go. With technology and shit people don’t need offices anymore. Only viejitos like Silvio have closets in the back of the shop with fax machines and calculators.”

“Why do you have to bring my dad into it? He’s a businessman, too.”

He laughed. “Silvio’s is a garage with an oven. Soon as it’s yours, we’re selling it.”

I closed my eyes. Fausto had confirmed Papi’s worst fear.

“I just mean we’re meant for bigger things, Paz,” he slid his hand onto my knee. “Oye, you could have gone to college, you were a good student. But your papi makes you sell I Love Colombia T-shirts instead.”

“It’s an honest living.”

“Listen to you! You sound just like him. ‘An honest living,’ ” he imitated my father’s heavy Inglich accent. “When it comes to cash, there’s no such thing.”

I hated when it came to this, me as Papi’s ambassador, Fausto launching missile after missile, so I took his plate, now vacant, and went inside to wash it. I’d go the inside route, stop by Papi’s room, poke my head in to say good night even though he was surely sleeping. By the time I brushed my teeth, my hair, and got to my room, Fausto would be in my bed, clothes peeled off, waiting.

 

The guy in the suit, whose name was Anibal—we never knew his last name—told Fausto to come up with one person who was reliable, had a clean record, an innocent face, a person who was discreet, preferably a girl because, Anibal said, girls come with built-in halos. Fausto, who thought of his brother Tadeo until he heard the halo thing, could only come up with one person. Me.

I didn’t know that part until much later.

I was at the restaurant when Fausto called. “Baby, I need you to do me a favor when you get off work. I need you to go to Wilfredo’s Body Shop, pick up Tadeo’s car, and drop it off for him at his new job.”

“Since when does Tadeo have a car?” That was always his excuse for not having a job.

“He just got one.”

“Where is he working?”

“That new mall. Biscayne and 145th. It’s a black Bronco and you’re going to leave it in the handicap space in front of the liquor store and then cross the street and I’ll pick you up at the gas station.”

“What about the keys?”

“Keep them. Tadeo has a set.”

“Why the handicap? What if it gets towed?”

“It’s just easier. God, Paz, you ask so many questions. If you don’t want to do the favor, just say so. Why do you have to whine about everything?”

“I’ll do it. I just want to be clear.”

The body shop was a few blocks from Silvio’s so I walked. The place was already closed except for a young guy sitting on a plastic crate along the fence, right behind the car. I assumed Tadeo had called ahead because the guy pulled the keys from his pocket and handed them right over before I said a word. I was impressed. A sharp ride with tinted windows. Not bad for a guy who spent life glued by the culo to the couch, smoking yerba.

I drove up I-95, sampling the stereo system. Traffic wasn’t so bad and I liked the feeling of driving a tanklike car because my little bean of a Mazda rattled on the highway. I left the car in the handicap spot and scuttled like Frogger across Biscayne. Fausto was there. Reliable, no matter what my father said, sitting in his black Sentra with some old Metallica cassette playing. Usually he’d get out of the car to greet me but this time I let myself in and when I said, “Oye, where’s my chivalrous prince?” he fumbled with the volume knob and said, “Baby, this is a really good song.”

He took the back roads home. I told him what a sweet car it was. I’d have to congratulate Tadeo next time I saw him, though we rarely crossed paths since I was always working and he was always home or out refilling his stock.

“We should get a car like that one day,” I said. “When we get married.”

Fausto smiled at me, “We will, we will.”

“We’ll pack up the kids in their car seats and go to the beach,” I said, because I knew it would crack him up. Fausto had been dying to impregnate me since the end of our first date to the county fair. We had baby names picked out and everything.

“Soon, Paz, soon,” he said, like he knew something, and for a second I wondered if maybe I was pregnant, but now we got our pills from Jorge who worked at a real pharmacy in Doral, and I was super religious about taking them most of the time.

I didn’t ask why the Bronco, a new car, wound up in repair shops all over Miami. And since Tadeo couldn’t hold a job, no surprise, I was always having to drop it off for him at his new place of employment which turned over pretty much every other week. I never complained because I wanted Fausto to see that just like I was always there for my father to go to church, to open or close the restaurant, he could count on me, too. Fausto was mad appreciative. He’d meet me on the other end of the errand, greet me in the Sentra with a wet kiss, drive me home, and we’d do it like we were new to each other, at the beginning of things, instead of at the end.

He started buying me gifts like in the early days when he was still trying to win me over the neighborhood chismes and my papi’s disapproval. Back then the gifts were small but sweet—chocolates, candies, roses, an ankle bracelet, or a hot bikini like the one I still wore even though the spandex was thinning. Now, the gifts were bigger, and part of me was grateful he’d stuck it out at The Diamond. They’d given him a raise, and there was the cash from the calls for fat man. The extra money turned into fancy underwear for me and a gold crescent-moon necklace with a dangling diamond star. Part of me wished it were a ring but I never said so.

During dinner one night, Papi pointed to my necklace, “Where did he get the money for that?”

“He’s got a good job now. Insurance, benefits, the works.”

Papi did his one-eye squint. Annoying as hell.

“He’s been going to church, too.” That was a lie but you can’t blame me for trying.

“Si?” Papi laughed. “Why? Padre Miguelangel got a money machine?”

“Why are you always so suspicious of people? You’re not the only decent man on earth.”

Papi smacked his hand on the table. “Oye, malcriada, I’m the father, you’re the child. Un poco de respeto!”

     

I’m going to tell you now so there are no surprises later, Tadeo’s truck was packed with kilos and kilos of cocaine and I was running it from traffickers to distributors like maldito UPS. It wasn’t even Tadeo’s car. Tadeo didn’t have a new job, anywhere. He was exactly where he’d always been, rolling joints on the coffee table, watching “Big Cat Diary.” Fausto didn’t tell me any of this until one night when I decided to wait to see if Tadeo came out to pick up the Bronco from the handicap space where I left it. Instead of Tadeo, another guy got out of a car in another parking space, jumped into the Bronco and drove off. I ran to tell Fausto it was being stolen but he just looked at me like he knew.

This is everything: for every transport that Fausto coordinated, he was paid five thousand dollars. That money, Fausto said, was for us. Us. For the ring, the wedding, the house, the car, the babies. To buy our freedom from my father, from his mother. He never told me the truth for my own protection, so that if I ever got pulled over by a cop I wouldn’t know what was going on, and so that between Anibal and me, there was no contact or connection. “That’s the way it works,” Fausto said, “These people keep the links in the chain separate so that nobody knows more than one other person.” He was stretching it, he said, by being the one to pick me up every time. He should have had someone else do it but he wanted to make sure I was safe. It was because he loved me so much, Fausto said, not because he didn’t want to have to pay someone else for that part of the job.

My heart tried to measure his lies while my mind started counting.

I’d done these pickup and drop-offs seven times in three months. We were deep in November; the holiday lights had gone up all over the city. Five thousand dollars a run. That was thirty-five thousand. Where was the money?

“You’re wearing some of it,” Fausto fingered my necklace and the edge of my bra.

After we got back to my house and Papi turned in for the night, Fausto met me in my room and got on his knees. He lifted the dust ruffle and slid under the bed frame, reached far into the corner that hit the wall, and pulled out an old metal Star Wars lunch box, pulled me down by the hand and we sat cross-legged on the floor. He opened the lunch box between us. It was packed with wads. Thirty two wads to be exact.

“We can’t put it in the bank. They’ll ask questions. It’s safer here but forget you’ve seen it.”

“We can’t do this.”

“Just a little longer. In six more months we’ll have a hundred thousand. We can do so much with that, Paz. Think of it.”

I want to tell you that it took a lot more for Fausto to convince me but the truth is I couldn’t take my eyes off the money. I pictured us taking our vows, me in a gorgeous lace dress, his tuxedoed arms around me as we danced at the reception. We would show everyone who doubted us that we’d managed to make a real life together.

 

There was a strip club around the corner from Silvio’s, and sometimes the girls stopped in for take-out arepas or buñuelos on their way to work. I’d watch them while they waited for Mireyis to fill their order, wondering what kind of a conversation a girl has to have with herself every time she strips. Sometimes they’d pass by Miguelangel’s reserved table in the corner and say, “Padrecito, una bendición, por favor,” lower their heads, and he’d give them a blessing because he wasn’t the type to discriminate. The girls weren’t necessarily beautiful; a few were borderline ugly, but they were made up like beauty queens in tight, tight clothing, fake tetas exploding from their tops. Once, Papi caught me staring and did one of his sneak attacks, whispering from over my shoulder, “If you ever take your clothes off for money, I will kill you myself.”

I rolled my eyes. “Jesus, Papi.”

“I know that’s what you were thinking!”

Sometimes I think Papi was born a senior citizen.

There was no point in debating stripping with Papi. I thought we actually owed those girls a cut because half our lunchtime clientele worked up appetites from their routines and lap dances. Papi’s theory was that fast money is dirty money and the fastest money a girl can make is with her body, but that’s because most people think drug running is man’s work.

Papi also says money is like horse blinders and blinders are how you bring down nations. I won’t lie, I wore mine like a Kentucky Derby champion.  There were people all over South Florida doing the same thing, driving cars full of coke from garages to malls, and I’d look at the cars on the highway around me, wondering which ones were loaded. I had a spotty driving record in my Mazda and a few ways of talking my way out of tickets. Any Miami girl knows if you tell a cop the reason for your speeding is your boyfriend just dumped you or you caught him cheating, the cop will almost always let you go. That must be what Anibal meant about the halo.

But in the Bronco, I was queen of the road and didn’t get pulled over once. I started to think my Saturday Masses were paying off and La Virgen was looking out for Fausto and me. I was sure she wanted to see us church-wed, baptizing our kids, the whole package. The delivery scheme was God’s plan, divine intervention, down to the hurricane that brought us to the beach and to Anibal.

Our delivery fee was small potatoes compared to what the big boys pulled in. It was nothing if you really thought about it. If we didn’t make the runs they’d find someone else to do it. Some greedy lowlife who didn’t have honorable dreams like we did.

We deserved this money. We were good people. All Fausto and I ever wanted was to be together. You can’t get more honest than that.

With the wisdom of a few more years on me now I can tell you, if love is blind like they say, hope and faith are its deaf and mute primos.

 

Seventy thousand dollars. We filled the lunch box and moved on to shoe boxes, turned my room into a vault but never bothered screwing the window frame back in. We also didn’t think twice about spending twenty thousand in just a few weeks, telling ourselves it was our commission. Fausto hired some guys to give his mom’s place a paint job, bought La Vieja and Tadeo a new tv and living room set. Bought my father some vintage tequila. New dresses, a watch, and salon highlights for me. A Ninja motorcycle, car stereo, and a leather jacket for him. Dinners out. Tables at South Beach nightclubs that didn’t let us past the rope just a few months before. A weekend in the Bahamas. Just like that, twenty Gs gone, and we were dumb enough to think nobody was onto us.

I tried to be charitable with our new fortune though, dropping hundred-dollar bills into the poor box, bringing a weekly bouquet of two dozen white roses to La Virgen thanking her for her protection. Once, I ran into Miguelangel who I remember looked handsome that day with his fresh crew cut. I could see why Mireyis and some of the waitress had crushes on him.

“Dios mío! We only see flowers like that around here for funerals.”

I thought he meant it as a joke so I laughed like it was funny.

“I was curious who has been leaving those bouquets.”

I gave a dumb smile because sometimes that’s a girl’s best defense.

He held up his hand to block the sun from his eyes. Didn’t walk away but didn’t say anything either, so I pulled a rose from the arrangement and handed it to him.

“You can put it on your desk or something.”

He took it and smiled. “Thank you. It’s been a long time since anyone gave me a flower.”

“I figured.”

“Paz,” he petted the flower like it was a kitten, “Is everything okay with you and Fausto?”

“Never better,” I said, because it was true, and because I sometimes suspected Miguelangel regretted being the one to bring Fausto and me into each other’s lives. They’d only met a few times and every time I mentioned Miguelangel around Fausto, he’d roll his eyes and tell me basta with the priest talk.

“Any wedding plans yet?”

“You’ll be the first to know. So we can reserve the church and everything.”

“Fausto’s mother is worried about him. And your father is worried about you.”

I laughed like that was a joke too. “Everyone’s always worried about us. We’re fine. We’ve always been fine. We always will be.”

I got this funny feeling I should get away from him and slipped into the chapel like I had urgent prayers to deliver. But Padre Miguelangel walked into the chapel right behind me and I felt him watching from the back row as I lay the flowers at the Virgin’s feet and dropped to my knees to pray.

 

We never made it to a hundred thousand. We were on our way home from a drop-off when Tadeo called and told Fausto some police had just come by looking for him.

Fausto drove into a desolate lot by the railroad tracks, behind an old warehouse where not even a streetlight hit us.

“Call your father. See if they’re looking for you too.”

Papi was at work but any time someone knocked at our house the neighbors would tell them where to find us.

“Where are you, Paz?”

“I’m out with Fausto. Just checking in. Everything okay?” My voice was shaky. I hoped he didn’t notice with the noise of the restaurant behind him.

“Si si, todo bien. Say good night when you come home.”

“I always do, Papi. Bye.”

I sighed, the longest sigh of my life, and looked at Fausto.

“Nothing.”

A train passed and flashed white lights across Fausto’s face, his terrified eyes. We sat in silence a long time. I didn’t ask questions. I knew he was still trying to figure it out.

 

The next morning, a Saturday, I went to Mass with my father. After the blessing, when the sunrise parishioners were headed for the door, Papi grabbed my wrist and said, “Why don’t we stay for the Via Crucis?”

He came to church without me some evenings and did the Stations on his knees. It was a long time since we’d done them together. We were at the sixth station. My favorite, since I was a kid. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. I’d wanted to be like her. It took a lot of guts to stick up for Jesus when the guy was getting the shit kicked out of him, dragging the cross, people throwing rocks and stuff. That’s what I was thinking about when Miguelangel came by, I assumed to say hello like he always did since Papi gave him a free tab.

“Don Silvio, there are some police outside.”

I thought Papi was going to hit the floor. He must have thought the restaurant was robbed or on fire. I’m sure he didn’t expect Miguelangel’s next words to be, “They want to talk to Paz.”

The night before, in the darkness of his car, Fausto predicted it would happen like this.

Before I got out of the car at the gas station where Fausto left me to catch a taxi home, I’d turned to him.

“I’ll wait for you. Even if they arrest you and there’s a trial and they give you ten years or more. I’ll wait for you.”

 He touched my cheek. “You always had the patience of a cloud.”

“We can still have everything we wanted. Get married. Have a family.”

I thought it would be enough. Fausto always said the only home he ever wanted was with me.

“Paz, if I go away, will you come with me?”

“Go where?”

“We could go back. To Colombia.”

“Our whole life is here.”

“This isn’t a life. It never was.”

Normally I’d look to Fausto for all my answers about the world but now I could only look away, to the train tracks, the shadows of a few fat rats running across them.

“Will you come with me, Paz?”

I used to play this game: who would I choose if I had to decide between my father and Fausto? If they were in a duel, like I knew they wished they could be, or if Papi went through with his threat to disinherit me if I married Fausto like I’d been planning since the day I met him. Who would I choose if I knew I’d never see the other again? Maybe it’s a twisted game but I pushed myself because sometimes it’s only in making hard choices that you know where you stand in life. Every time, I chose Fausto.

In the end, there was no real question.

“I can’t leave my father.”

He nodded as if he’d known it all along.

Because I knew Fausto like I knew my own reflection, I knew he would hide in his car all night, park behind Silvio’s because that’s the last place anyone would look for him. After sleeping alone, I would go to sunrise Mass with my father. Fausto would be watching as Papi and I left the house and walked to San Lorenzo’s. I would feel his eyes on me all the way to the church steps. And then he would be gone.

     

The police questioned me on an iron bench under the willow tree outside the church. Papi watched from a few yards away, Miguelangel’s arm wrapped around him as if he were a child, and I noticed, maybe for the first time, how life had shrunken my father. I played stupid the way I’d been trained and the police never charged me with anything. Never treated me as anything but the innocent, oblivious girlfriend. About me, the neighborhood people said, “Poor Paz, taking care of her Papi her whole life, giving her heart to a desgraciado junior wannabe narco. Que hijueputa vergüenza.” In less than a breath, Fausto’s last name became Shame.

Fausto went to Medellín. We know because he used Tadeo’s passport.

“All for the money,” said Papi, when things calmed down and it was just he and I at the dinner table, no covered plate on the counter waiting. For a while, Papi made fun of me, calling me The Widow because Fausto hadn’t shown any signs of life since he fled. It wasn’t all for the money, though, because he left me with it. I thought he’d creep into my room to get some for his escape but he never did.

I counted. It was all there. But I couldn’t touch that money.

I went to San Lorenzo’s on the Monday after Easter and hung out in a pew after the noon Mass with my knapsack beside me, waiting for Miguelangel to change out of his robes. He came up the aisle in his black day clothes and I met him by the baptismal font.

I looked around. Just some scattered old ladies praying.

“Can I talk to you?” I pointed to the confessional in the back of the church.

“You want to confess?”

I hadn’t planned on it but decided I might as well. I’d only confessed once or twice since high school when it was mandatory. I’d been inspired to go a few times but always preferred to hang with Fausto instead. This time I didn’t bother sitting behind the screen, just on the chair across from the priest. I didn’t remember any of the protocol so I just started telling my sins, starting with disrespecting my Papi, cursing, fucking, and lying, ending with the drug running. I knew Miguelangel could take it. It was public knowledge his entire family was gunned down in some El Salvadoran massacre so for sure, he’d heard worse. I swear, it’s always the people with the shittiest luck who end up closest to God.

But even Miguelangel, who had expertise in counseling convicted murderers, looked shaken. I was relieved when he absolved me because that’s always good insurance. Then I told Miguelangel to hold on a second, pulled the backpack in front of my feet, and unzipped it so he could see the cash inside.

“It’s seventy thousand dollars. I’m going to leave it with you. For the poor.”

His eyes bulged and he gripped his chair’s armrests.  

“I know people come here when they’re broke and desperate, Padre. Sometimes that’s the only time they come.”

One of Papi’s favorite old village stories is of the famous loan shark who had a vision of La Virgen in his aguardiente, repented, and donated his counterfeit bill printer to the church. When things got hard the local priest would crank out some fresh pesos for his flock just like Jesus multiplying loaves and fish. It was only when he was on his deathbed and people were writing Rome to sign him up for sainthood that the priest confessed the real source of his milagros.

I told Miguelangel how the priest fed people when they were starving, helped them pay off debts, weddings, and funerals with his secret money machine while the people were convinced it was the work of God.

“And maybe it was,” I said. “Maybe that’s how God works. You never know.”

“We can’t use that money here, Paz.”

The stained glass window made blue and red spots on his forehead. It made me smile a little.

“You can pull a few miracles out of this bag, Padre, don’t you think?”

Miguelangel couldn’t stop shaking his head.

I pushed the bag toward him.

“Make sure some if it goes to Fausto’s mother. And Tadeo if he gets in any trouble. And the old people, especially the lonely ones with no family left I see getting skinnier every week. And anyone else you think needs a hand.”

You can’t blame the guy for keeping quiet. A priest could get into serious trouble for accepting drug money on behalf of his parish.

But he did. So we’re not going to call it that anymore.

Go ahead and add money laundering to my list of crimes because the only thing I wanted was to wash those dollars clean. It’s been three years and the only trace of it is that the audience at Mass has gotten a little fuller and there are more flowers at the foot of the Virgin if you’re in the neighborhood and want to take a look. And if he ever calls or if the night comes when Fausto climbs into my window like I’ve been praying every day since he left, I’ll tell him what we did.

 

About the author

Patricia Engel was born to Colombian parents and raised in New Jersey. Her first book, Vida (Grove Press), was named a New York Times Notable Book and Editors’ Choice, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a Barnes & Noble Best Book of 2010. ​


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